The people like Ghana because it is free.

Saturday, July 2.

Returning to Accra these four months later, doing in reverse the day-long journey by bus, it’s like seeing this city for the first time. Did everything seem so prosperous the last time around? The very high high-rises, the luxury sedans, the sprawling suburbs, like an endless strip mall. Suddenly, dear, dirty Ouaga feels like even more of a provincial backwater – some ancient city, perhaps, unearthed by the harmattan winds, its maquis and boulangeries the relics of some lost Mandingo tribe.

Already that city is obscured behind a curtain of dust. Accra, its traffic jams and bowel smells, is a reality that is quickly forced upon you. We arrive at half-past four in the morning, the city already lively, the commuters packing into tro-tros, hoping to beat the traffic. The long drive to East Legon is a smooth one: at the start of the workday, it is toward Accra Central that all roads lead. At Kofi’s house Regina, the housekeeper, is there to greet me with her lyric sing-song. Kofi is away in Lagos; he won’t be back till next week; once again, I’ll have his place to myself.

These next few days in Accra will be brief, busy. I’m preparing to spend the next three weeks on the coast, researching a story about Ghana’s slave forts that I’m hoping to sell to some major American and British dailies. It is, on the surface, not the easiest of travel stories to pitch: following in the footsteps of the slave trade makes for a somber holiday. But foreign tourist arrivals have risen by almost 150 percent since President Obama’s visit in 2009 – something local tourism officials have dubbed the “Obama effect.” Many are black Americans, hoping to rediscover their roots (a complicated process: an excellent piece I found in The New York Times’ archives described the shock felt by black Americans upon being called obruni – a term typically used for whites). Following in the footsteps of W.E.B. Dubois, Maya Angelou, Malcolm X, and other prominent black Americans who visited Ghana during the feverish post-independence years. It was a reciprocal relationship: Kwame Nkrumah himself studied in the States. Today, the number of Ghanaians living in America is second only to Nigeria as the largest diaspora population from the continent.

There will be time for all that later: on my first day back in Accra, I sleep till noon. It is a gray day, cool, threatening rain; not without some relief do I discover that the terrible humidity of February has passed. The weather is almost pleasant. Packing into a crowded tro-tro in Adjiringanor isn’t half as soul-wearying as it was four months ago. Nowhere do you see the overdressed men and husky women dabbing at their foreheads and waving their handkerchiefs, as if in surrender. I’ve set aside the afternoon for practical considerations – the changing of flights, the purchasing of toiletries – and decide, after a long, exhausting bus ride, that a visit to the Accra Mall is as much as I’m willing to dare on my first day back.

A bad move. It is July 1, Republic Day. Only after arriving at the mall do I realize the schools and government offices are closed, the country is celebrating. The mall is packed. Every spoiled teenager and overfed toddler in the greater Accra area has chosen this day to cram the food court and bumrush the arcade and slouch against the walls, affecting hip-hop postures. Conspicuous wealth abounds. If the Accra Mall were an independent republic, its flag would be printed on crisp 100 cedi notes. I elbow my way into the Internet café, fight my way through the line at Creamy’s Inn for a cup of soft-serve ice cream. It is one of those rare days when Makola or Kaneshie market would have been stress-free by comparison.

Little is accomplished by the evening: the Air Namibia offices are closed for the holiday, and the one book I’m hoping to find for my slave-trade story is nowhere to be found in the mall’s single low-rent bookshop. Often I wonder how my temperament would change in Africa if I weren’t a freelance writer – if I had to accomplish actual tasks on a daily basis. Defeated by a fruitless day, still with an hour to kill before my dinner plans with Lucia – my housemate from Ouaga, in town for an undoubtedly thrilling water and sanitation conference – I escape the mania of the food court for a cup of coffee at Tante Marie.

The tables inside are full; outside, the terrace affords fine views of the parking lot. On a day like this, you take what you can get. I’m on my way to an empty table when a man sitting by himself sees me and does a double-take, thinking he recognizes me from somewhere. You grow a lot less self-conscious about confusing a black man for another black man in Africa when you realize how often such confusion is reciprocated toward whites. I am not, alas, the obruni he was looking for. Small talk commences, and I gesture toward his table, asking to join him. Such a relief, after those long months in Burkina, to fall so easily into conversation here in Accra. The man’s name is Kwame; he is plump, serious, well-dressed – the sort of man you would find in an advertisement for The Africa Report, forehead thoughtfully furrowed over a copy of The Africa Report. He has just finished a smoothie and is preparing to order another smoothie. Boys are catcalling in the parking lot. An SUV passes, and another. Two men in shiny shoes and open-collared shirts, smiling like money.

(Here I remember Collins, a waiter at one of the Labadi beach bars who I met back in February. An aspiring rapper, he performed a song for me with the memorable hook, “How can I buy the Gucci?” It was, he explained, about a young man struggling to find love in Accra. The rapper wanted to take his girl to a fried rice joint, but she would only go if he could take her to Frankie’s – a favorite of local scenesters in Osu. The girls wanted to hear “Gucci,” said Collins, even if you couldn’t afford it. In effect, whether or not you could buy the Gucci mattered less than whether or not you could promise it.)

Kwame sitting there, his shirt unbuttoned partly down his chest, a wristwatch on his arm the size of an Aztec sundial. He looks out across the parking lot with an air of beneficence, as if he were Mammon himself, bestowing his blessings on the assembled shoppers. “The great thing about Ghana is that people are ready to buy anything you want to sell them,” he says. “It is very easy to make money if you keep your head straight.”

Kwame, it seems, has kept his head straight. He was born in Ahuri, a lush hill town an hour’s drive from Accra, and educated in the U.K. He lives now in Tema, where he runs a thriving import-export business and engages in various side rackets. Part-time he’s studying broadcast journalism; he has a time slot on Choice FM where he presents the news. “They are thinking of moving me to traffic,” he says. I point out that this is like the gift that keeps on giving. Life in Ghana has been good to Kwame. I ask if he ever thinks about going back to the U.K. and he laughs and shakes his head. “I have a business, I own a football team, I am starting to go into politics,” he says. “Why would I mess with that?”

Twenty minutes later a friend turns up, Shirley, all tits and teased hair and an air about her that could best be described as “willing.” Kwame gives her an affectionate little half-hug, less dirty old man than paterfamilias. Shirley can’t be a day over 19; Kwame is four days shy of his 31st birthday. There is some unspoken history, I suspect, between them. The two of them withdraw into their own conversation, something to do with an older man – a much older man – who is offering to pay for Shirley’s books. That’s how he put it: “I want to buy you books.” Shirley, batting her big false eyelashes, making him sound like St. Thomas Aquinas. Kwame does up his face in an expression of profound disbelief. “He is going to take you to the hotel,” he says, “and show you the special room with books.” My warmth for him growing. Shirley shakes her head, shakes the little ringlets of hair over her shoulders, her eyelashes like windshield wipers. The man is a fat cat, a former minister. His interest in the education of the nation’s youth is admirable. Leaving the restaurant, Kwame with his fat graceful hand on the small of Shirley’s back, things seem to have reached a foregone conclusion. Shirley has defended the man’s high intentions, his honor. What could be more innocent than a noble patron buying a young girl books?

Kwame, sighing, making little anguished faces, steers her into the parking lot. He has done his best; the fallout will come later, after mistakes have been made. (Earlier, speaking of the government’s failures to curb the growing traffic crisis, he observed, “We wait until there is a problem, and then we solve it. But for the future? We are not imaginative.”) Shirley departs into the night with two styrofoam containers of takeaway chicken, Lucia arriving with a big smile and big appetite. We get into Kwame’s car for the drive to Osu, whirling around Tetteh Quashie circle, Kwame pointing out new shopping complexes and housing developments, almost all of them tied to family members of the ruling clique. “They say this is a democracy, but I call it a monarchy,” he says. “If you get into that place” – meaning State House – “you share it with everyone around you.” The whole city seems to be a fiefdom, tied to the fortunes of presidents present and past. Kwame laughs it off with grudging admiration. If there is some statesman, he says, maybe “he did some good things, but he also stole a lot of money. As surely as you are criticizing him, there is someone who is defending him passionately.”

Looming high above the traffic, a monstrous new luxury apartment complex is being built, Villaggio Primavera – it sounded like a bad dish you ordered at the Olive Garden. It was bankrolled by a man called Tressaco, an Italian real estate mogul who had also built the upscale gated community where Lucia’s aunt lived in East Legon. According to Kwame, the man traverses the country in his private helicopter. Kwame himself has had dealings with the Italian: a new Tressaco complex is being built in Tema, adjacent to where Kwame owns land. He had bought the parcels five years ago, at $5,000 a piece; now Tressaco is hoping to push Kwame out – he offered $35,000 a parcel just a few months ago. Kwame laughs; he is holding out; he knows the land is worth much more. “In five years, I will be set up,” he says with assurance.

Osu, High Street, the neon scrawl, the lit-up shop windows. We join the long queue of gently braking cars, taillights flaring. Outside the window young men selling cheap belts, soccer jerseys, women with bags of fried plantains. It was here that I met Fatao, a young Burkinabé artist, four months ago. “I am Mr. Quality,” he said, by way of introduction, “because I make quality things.” A skinny boy in a soiled Carolina Panthers jersey and ragged flip-flops, his browning teeth, colorful cloth bags slung over both shoulders. I’d like to meet him again, to talk about Ouagadougou, to show off my threadbare French. He had spent three years in Accra, sleeping in the empty markets at night with other Burkinabés. They had taught him to stitch together the bags he sold to tourists. (Or tried to. “They do now want quality things,” he said sadly of three British girls, their faces tight with rejection, as we eyed their long, tanned legs.) In Côte d’Ivoire, the police harassed him for his working papers. In Burkina, they were constantly demanding his carte d’identité. But in Accra he had found some sort of home. “The people like Ghana because it is free,” he said to me.

No sign of Fatao now, his bags, his immigrant woes. On Lucia’s last night we splurge on dinner at Monsoon, the tables crowded with well-dressed whites, the accents American and English, Italian and German. Hearing the flat, brassy notes of some prairie state, I realize with longing how much I miss the white noise of French. Lucia, consigned to another ten months in Burkina, seems to be soaking it all up, storing it away in some pocket of memory. She has planned her escapes: a conference in Kigali in July, a few weeks in London in August. Soon it will be the holidays, Christmas in Cape Town. The pages of the calendar start to fall away.

After dinner we’re haggling with the taxi drivers on High Street, asking 25, 30 cedis for the drive to East Legon. A young driver plants himself in front of me. “How much you pay?” he asks.

“How much do you pay?”

He makes a face of deep concentration. The burning of mental energy, like some fossil fuel. What price can he squeeze out of us?

“Fifteen cedi,” he says.

“My friend,” I say, taking him warmly by the shoulder, “you’re getting ripped off.”

The traffic is thin by now, close to midnight. The bars are filling, roadside spots with sound systems turned toward the street. Skinny, shuffling bodies on outdoor dancefloors. The police shine a flashlight into our car at a checkpoint and wave us through. We drop off Lucia at her aunt’s estate, tall walls and Buckingham Palace gates hardly obscuring the garish villas behind them. Yes, there is money to be made in Ghana. By the time I reach Kofi’s house – much progress has been made; the place is almost finished – it seems positively quaint by comparison.

Just minutes after locking the gate my phone chirps. It is Regina; she’s out on the street. She’s just getting back from church – ! – and I’ve locked her out. I let her in and her face is rapturous, still damp with Christian sweat. She says she’ll see me in the morning and walks shuffle-stepped toward the house, nephew bundled to her back, humming church hymns to herself.

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One response to “The people like Ghana because it is free.

  1. Barbara Soloski Albin

    Back in Ghana, I still remember when you wrote about the No. 1 Ladies in Botswana. I make fair traded jewelry and book marks. I get my Kazuris beads from Kenya, but I get my Baule beads from Ghana and many other beads from Ghana. I try to make sure I only purchase fair traded, sometimes not easy. Surprised (and not) to see you back in Africa so soon. Take care of yourself and keep posting. Barbara

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